The Importance of Story and Memory for New American Immigrants

Siraji Hassan

“If people see the way I dress they might think, ‘Oh, you’re a thug,’ but look at my report card. I’ve got nothing but As and Bs since the second grade.”

Siraji Hassan is part of a new American story, one where many people have multiple cultural identities in an increasingly globalized world. Hassan’s family are Somali-Bantu refugees, but he has been living in the United States since he was eight years old. He is now 16.

Siraji blends in with his American-born peers at Taylor-Allderdice High School, but he is also aware of the things that set him apart: his experiences as a refugee due to the militia conflicts in East Africa; his ability to fluently speak five languages; and his religion, Islam, which is his way of life. “I don’t try to stand out from anyone else in school,” he said.

Living in Northview Heights, a public housing community where there is often the danger of violence, Siraji spends most of his time indoors, taking care of five younger siblings. Having spent half of his life growing up in the United States, he is as comfortable with American culture as he is with traditional Somalian culture, but his mother is finding it difficult to pass their cultural heritage on to his younger brothers and sisters.

“She worries that they don’t speak Somalian, that they will only speak English,” he said, “She says if, ‘If they forget how to speak Somalian how are they going to be able to communicate with me?’ But I tell her that they aren’t doing it on purpose, this is all they know.”

Passing on linguistic traditions is part of preserving memory; and memory, for Siraji, is important. “When you don’t remember, then you forget who you are and you start to do bad things and get into trouble,” he said. He recounts the experiences of friends who joined gangs and turned to drugs. For Siraji, knowing your story is essential in order to know your identity and find your way in life.

When Siraji talks about memory and story he is referring to two things: remembering the story of how his family survived as refugees, and were eventually selected to come to America, and remembering the story of how they had to adapt to their new home.

“I learned to speak English very quickly, by watching the lips of my classmates and imitating what they were doing,” he said. Part of remembering is recollection of a promise that he and other young Somalian refugees made to their families when they left for the United States, “We did not come to this country for things to stay the same — we came here to do better and to make our relatives proud of us. You ask any Somalian student and he will tell you that he made a promise to his family to get an education here.”

So deeply engrained is the memory of that promise, said Siraji, that Somali-Bantu students in American high schools are in competition with each other to graduate. “It’s the cultural norm,” he said, “90% of Somalian students graduate from high school.”

Siraji’s uncles perform Hip Hop, which is now part of the Somalian-Bantu-American cultural hybrid that they have created. Siraji proudly sports one of the promotional T-shirts that his uncles designed. But he has also created an African dance group in high school. Both types of performances reflect his bi-cultural identity.

Siraji believes that it is important for the Somali-Bantu community, which is geographically spread over different parts of Pittsburgh, to have a way to get together for more occasions than just weddings and soccer games. “We should build a community center,” he said.

In the Garfield section of Pittsburgh, in August, the Somali-Bantu community will hold a celebration for Somali independence, and for the freedoms and opportunities they enjoy in America. This, once again, reflects the two sides of their story — one that spans across continents and oceans.

Siraji sees the prospect of a community center as something that would enable them to pass on their culture and traditions to younger generations — it is all part of remembering.

C. Matthew Hawkins

Related Book of Interest: Black Racial Identity and Schooling

Also of interest: Recent Black Immigrants Change African American Narratives; Linking Cultures and Transcending Labels; Post-Blackness and Academic Achievement; and Three Populations Likely to Embrace Post-Blackness

How Have Recent Black Immigrants Changed African American Narratives?

Siraji during an SCA Earth Day Pittsburgh event.

The demographic shift in the African American community as a result of large numbers of recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean challenges us to re-think and re-define the African American story. There are those who argue that to be a “real” African American you have to have an ancestral link to American slavery. The authentic African American narrative, according to this point-of-view, is grounded in the experience of being an involuntary racial minority.

In contrast to this, most racial and ethnic groups in the United States have a voluntary minority narrative; they came here voluntarily, albeit under distressed circumstances, so that their frame-of-reference is that America provided relief from the economic, social or political problems in their land of origin.

While the traditional African American story has had an important place in the overall American narrative — challenging, as it did, how deep the commitment was in the United States to democratic principles, the stories of late 19th century and early 20th century immigrants have also had their places in the larger American story. The stories of voluntary immigrants helped to construct the image of the United States as a land of opportunity and improbable accomplishments.

This, in part, helps to explain skepticism with which the African American community initially viewed Barack Obama when he was running for president. The narrative that Obama wove into his speeches was an unfamiliar one for most African Americans; where black Americans were accustomed to a narrative that challenged whites to take down barriers that stood in the way of their full participation in American institutions, Obama spoke optimistically of how almost anything seemed possible in this country.

With the rise of populations of recent immigrants who now compose what might be called the “African American community,” black Americans are increasingly creating voluntary minority narratives of their own and increasingly have their own immigrant stories to tell. These stories are full of optimism. The frame-of-reference is shifting from a normative focus on racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws, which pointed out the irony of “American democracy,” to the poverty, exploitation, corruption, and oppression in other parts of the world, which has made the United States a refuge for the dispossessed.

Siraji Hassan is a member of the Pittsburgh Student Conservation Association (SCA) and has graduated from its Leadership in the Environment Advancement Program (LEAP). His story is an example of some of the newer narratives emerging out of African American communities today. It is very important to hear these new African American stories. Stories such as Siraji’s are now becoming part of the larger American story. This is Siraji’s story:

“Being an American means a lot to me because my people, the Somali-Bantu, have experienced many hardships. I once lived in a refugee camp, called Kakuma, and now I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn’t go to school in Kakuma, Now I attend Allderdice High School. I didn’t have a job in Kakuma, Now I work at the Student Conservation Association (SCA). It was hard for my family to make a living and we struggled for food. Now that my dad and I have jobs, we can support my family. Many of my friends here have gotten their citizenship and very soon, my parents will be taking their test. When I become a citizen, I will be able to get my U.S. passport and have the opportunity to return to Kenya. However, this time it will be different.

I left Kenya a refugee and I am returning as a Somali-American. And I am very proud of that. I will be able to see family members that I was sadly forced to leave behind.

One night in Somalia, I remember all the parents were sitting together. One man came to us and we all had to leave the country. He told us that there was going to be a big war, and that we had to leave as soon as possible. He said there were going to be bombs and shooting and we were going to be in danger.

When the bombs started exploding, my mother took me on her back, grabbed my brother and my sister, and left our house. My other brother was still there, but my mother returned to get him later. When she found him, our house had been destroyed. My mom grabbed all of us, and started running to safety. We later found other Somali Bantu families that were doing the same thing: Somali-Bantu walking, fleeing for their safety. Many people died walking. People starved, died of thirst, or were eaten by animals.

For three days, we all walked through the jungles and the deserts. By the last night, many people had died. We took as many people as we could along the way. When we started running out of water, we were forced to drink urine for us to survive. That last day, we finally saw a car driving through the desert, which was there to help the Somalis get across the border. They couldn’t drive us, but they told us to keep walking, and that we were close to Kakuma. On the third day, we reached the refugee camp and my mother started crying. The next several days we spent in the hospital. We were given ration cards for food and were given a house that we would live in for the next eight years. Finally, we received notice for an interview to come to the United States and my mother told me the story I just told.

This is why I am proud to be an American. Many of the Somali-Bantu know this story well, and experienced many of the same things my family and I did. But I can proudly say that I am here, and will soon call myself an American.”

(Reprinted from SCA 06/13/12)

C. Matthew Hawkins

Also of interest: Toward a Definition of Post Blackness; Three Populations Likely to Embrace Post Blackness; Linking Cultures and Transcending Labels; and Post Blackness and Academic Achievement

Four Hip Hop Performances that Never Get Old

microphone Recently I came across a post on Facebook asking readers what their favorite hip hop albums of all time were. Although I am more selective, today, about what I fill my ears and my mind with than I was when I first heard these songs, here are the albums that were my all-time favorites from the early 1980s until the late 1990s. I was usually drawn by a combination of the vocal delivery of the performers and by the lyrics. The background sampling and the instrumental background played a large role in enhancing the lyrics, setting the mood and giving the songs a catchy beat.

Some of the albums were artistic because of the humor of the performer while others became my all time favorites because of the density and complexity of their lyrics. While I cannot vouch for the actual message of most of these performances, the overall quality of the performances makes them albums I can listen to again and again.

As was true with many people, my first exposure to Hip Hop came from listening to New York’s own Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and the Furious Five, back in the early 1980s. The Best of Grandmaster Flash, et. al. (1982), was one of my favorite albums, but actually there were only two songs on the album I listened to repeatedly: “New York, New York”, and “The Message”. The album spoke to me of alienation and the illusion of the glitter of the big city. It also channeled the stress and frustration of struggling just to get by. This was a powerful album to raise “social consciousness.”


Shortly before I moved to California, in 1989, I discovered Compton, California’s Eazy-E. As a young man I thoroughly enjoyed the sick and forbidden humor in his Eazy-Duz-It album (1988). I also enjoyed the sampling mix his DJ used in the background, and the unique quality of Eazy-E’s voice and delivery.

I think that unique voices are important in Hip Hop; some of my favorites, in additional to Eazy-E and Tupac, were Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D and Flavor Flav from Public Enemy, and Cee-Lo Green of the Goodie Mob. Eazy-E’s debut solo album was playful in its anti-social mentality.


I actually heard New York’s Public Enemy (P.E.) before I discovered Eazy-E. The vocal tones of Chuck D and Flavor Flav caught my attention in their first album, Yo, Bum Rush The Show, but I didn’t feel that they really mastered their craft until their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988). More than any album before, or since, for P.E., Nation of Millions brought together vocal performance, sampling background, beat, and lyrical content. Even though the album blatantly exploited Black consciousness and paranoia, and capitalized on victimization imagery, it was highly effective in delivering its basic message, which could be paraphrased in this way: “Don’t believe the official narrative — both the government and mass media lie”.


By the late 1990s I was bobbing my head to Atlanta’s The Goodie Mob. In contrast to Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, the Goodie Mob’s second album, Still Standing (1998), was less socio-political than it was socio-spiritual. Cee-Lo’s delivery was a draw for me, and the group’s lyrics were dense with imagery and metaphor. Of course none of this would have worked without background music that set the mood and enhanced the verbal message. Significantly, by the time Still Standing was released Hip Hop artists relied much less on sampling — largely due to copyright issues that had not yet been as much of a problem for earlier artists, who were still pioneers in the field. The art form lost something when it lost its footloose and carefree sampling, but the Goodie Mob’s Still Standing album was a good example of how instrumental backgrounds could be effectively employed as a replacement.


Is a “Competitive” Black Male a “Problem” in the Social Services?

Why do many social service professionals assume that a competitive Black male is a "problem"?  Image credit:

Why do many social service professionals assume that a competitive Black male is a “problem”?
Image credit:

Recently I had a conversation with three other Black Americans who are involved in the social services that illustrated how some helping professionals fear the type of behavior that they should actually encourage.

One of the social service professionals worked for the government, another worked for a non-profit, and the third worked in the private sector.

In the course of the conversation I asked whether or not it was their impression that African American males who are “competent and competitive” in Western Pennsylvania tend to be perceived as being “intimidating” and are marginalized in the professional workforce.

I was prepared for the usual round of denials from social service professionals, but what I was not prepared for was the intensity of their reaction to the particular phrase: “competent and competitive”. It was as though the phrase, itself, embodied social dysfunction.

My professional friends jumped all over the word “competitive”, and interpreted it as meaning a poor upbringing leading to bad public behavior.

They hyperventilated about poor work habits, bad attitudes, and not being able to get along with others in the workplace. Mind you, I had used the terms “competent” and “competitive” — and I was clearly referring to professionals like themselves. Yet their reaction was one that would have been appropriate if I had been talking about someone who was ill-mannered, unprepared, and lacked basic social skills. It was as if I had asked why gang members being sidelined by the professional workforce.

Although they were not directly addressing me, at least I hope not, their response was in full lecture mode, “You have to know how to act. You have to know how to dress. You have to know how to get along with people. You have to know how to behave in the workforce.”

Later, I replayed the conversation over and over in my mind and it was clear that the word that set them off was the word “competitive,” and when used to describe the behavior of Black males they saw it as an unqualified negative attribute. Do social service professionals believe that Black males should not be competitive? Would that make them feel more comfortable?

I retold this conversation to a friend and he nodded and confirmed that  the phrase “competent and competitive” sounded odd in reference to Black male professionals. Not that it was problematic, or signaled something that was dysfunctional to him — just that it was odd.

I searched my memory, trying to recall when and where I first picked up that phrase. Suddenly it hit me. I picked it up from a recording of a meeting between Senator Robert F. Kennedy, back in the  late 1960s, and advocates for education reform. Kennedy said that he wanted to see schools that would produce Black graduates who could “deal competently and competitively with their environment.”

In that context, to be competitive did not mean to be bad mannered or poorly socialized, rather it was the very measure of social competence and was essential for getting a foothold in the mainstream of American society. It was a necessary virtue on the road to social equality. To be competitive, in Kennedy’s day, was at the very core of self-esteem.

Robert F. Kennedy, Cabinet Room, White House, ...

My frame-of-reference for the term came from Senator Robert F. Kennedy during a meeting on education reform.

I realize that much has changed in the United States since the late 1960s. There is a more negative connotation to “competitive” behavior in anything other than sports. It seems to suggest, to many people, being self-absorbed and being a poor “team player”. The social services are particularly suspicious of competitive types as being ill suited for the “global village” or for membership in a community. Yet, the United States remains a highly competitive society. Even members of dominant groups must compete in order to survive. What chance do minorities have if they are not competitive also?

This sense of competition does not mean the lack of teamwork or community spirit — a basketball team is highly competitive, yet it will never win without cooperation and coordination between its members — but it does mean that one should be able to hold one’s own among others who are holding theirs.

Judging by the intensity of the negative emotional reaction from my colleagues I can’t help but to wonder whether or not many of us have lost sight of this. I can’t help but to wonder whether or not the social services prefer to have what they consider to be “well-adjusted” black males to interact with, as opposed to competent and competitive ones — who might be a little too independent-minded for their comfort.

C. Matthew Hawkins

Going Out Into the Deep: The Messiness of a Life of Faith

Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Sacred Heart Catholic Church (Photo credit: enkrates)

Paul Kennedy’s op ed piece in the New York Times, about the physical nature of the church — how the church is experienced in tangible ways, in a physical community, through study groups and acts of charity, captures much of what drew me to the church in the first place.

Kennedy says:

“The litmus test is whether you help the unknown, the desperate-looking person at the soup kitchen, the beggar on the street. At the end of his striking homily upon this passage, [a] remarkable Catholic chaplain at Yale told us bluntly: ‘This is the test. Do you love your unknown neighbor as yourself? Do you love your dirty, hairy, smelly, dispossessed neighbor as yourself, and will you reach out to help?’ Loving your God, and loving your known and unknown neighbors as yourself, is the core. Everything else, said Father Bob, ‘is footnotes.'”

This resonates well with my sense that the life of faith is a messy affair. There are many people who believe that by becoming religious everything in their life will fall into place. Their lives will become perfect and trouble-free. Those of us who have walked along this path know that it is anything but smooth and trouble-free. We, as individuals, are works of imperfection; so is the world we live in.

Part of the process of being formed and strengthened in our faith is to be challenged — even beyond the breaking point. There was a prayer attributed to Nikos Kazantzakis:

“I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw, lest I rot. Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break. Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break.”

There is a sense, in this, that even as we are taxed beyond our strength, and we are broken, we are being created anew. Pope John Paul II, implored young people not to settle for a life of mediocrity. Quoting scriptures he said, “Go out, into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.”

This is not a description of a life of comfort and predictability; it is a description of a life that requires faith, precisely because one is uncertain and afraid. It requires getting in over your head, and thriving there.

When I was a teenager, long before I was old enough to convert to Catholicism, I heard a recording of a folk Mass. The album was by Father Peter Scholtes, titled “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”

The style of the Mass was called the Missa Bossa Nova, because it employed Bossa Nova music in the expression of the liturgy. That was during the heady days immediately after Vatican II. Since that time, with more conservative trends in liturgical expression, folk Masses have gone out of favor. I think that is regrettable.

Although much of the “experimental” liturgical music was pretty bad — it was poorly done — the Missa Bossa Nova was an example of how the liturgy can be elevated through some forms of contemporary cultural expression. It was  a musical expression that made me fall in love with the liturgy of the Catholic Church. It captured the spirit of repentance and redemption, which is at the core of the Christian message.

In its Afro-Latin instruments and arrangements I recognized something that  was even more “African” than the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which my family belonged to.  The Missa Bossa Nova seemed to bring the faith to the streets — where it really mattered.


The walk of faith is a journey, which we take in the company of, and in companionship with, others. The path is not always easy, nor is it always clear to us. Some of the challenges that we encounter along the way would seem to defy all reason. Without faith, we might very well conclude, with the existentialists, that life is absurd. We need the company of our companions on this journey, and they need us to walk along side of them, share experiences and encourage them.

This is the nature of the physicality of the church.

It is very human, both in its strengths and vulnerabilities — and even in the temptation, at times, to turn away.

The Once and Future Church?

Soufrière Catholic Church

Soufrière Catholic Church (Photo credit: waywuwei)

As the Roman Catholic Church prepares for a transition to a new papacy there has been a surge of thoughtful commentary — much of it not so thoughtful — about the future and the history the church. Garry Wills has consistently described the obstacle to reform of the church as being the concentration of power in the papacy, most notably, in the doctrine of papal infallibility. For this he takes 19th century Pope Pius IX to task in a recent New York Times piece, reflecting his overall pessimism about church reform, “I’ve Given Up Hope“:

“In 1870, [Pius IX] elicited — from a Vatican council he called and controlled — the first formal declaration that a pope is infallible. From that point on, even when he was not making technically infallible statements, the pope was thought to be dealing in eternal truths. A gift for eternal truths is as dangerous as the gift of Midas’s touch. The pope cannot undo the eternal truths he has proclaimed.”

Wills has also been critical of priestly celibacy in his book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition.

Hans Kung, a long time theological adversary of Cardinal Ratizinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, has taken his criticism further back to the institution of the papacy itself. In an Op-ed piece in the Times titled “Vatican Spring?” Kung argues that the papacy, the Curia (in its present form) and priestly celibacy, all traditions started in the 11th century under Pope Gregory VII,  present obstacles to ecumenical understanding and interfaith dialogue.

After citing numerous challenges facing the church — from the alienation of parishioners to the shortage of priests — Kung calls for a transformative papacy:

“In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution. It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity.”

Kung will come out with a new book, later this year, titled Can the Church Be Saved?

On the other side there is Paul Kennedy, who, when he sees descriptions of the Catholic Church in mass media and in the popular mind, wonders what church they are talking about. In an op-ed piece, with a title asking precisely this question, Kennedy gives examples of selfless volunteers at soup kitchens, and full church pews as evidence of the continued vitality of the church. He says that faith is actualized through the physicality of the church. The meaning of faith lived through the activities and experiences of its people. Faith is known and expressed in very physical ways.

He says that popular opinion is focused on all the wrong questions. It is focused on the politics within the church, and between the church and other faith communities. Popular opinion, he says, is also focused on the titillating stories of financial and sexual scandal. The real story, says Kennedy, is story of the clergy, intellectually engaged, and of the laity who seek the face of Christ in strangers — even strangers who may be difficult to like, but whom Christians are obligated to love.

Why The King Holiday Really Matters….

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The video I have attached certainly ranks among one of the most important speeches that Martin Luther King, Jr.  delivered. This is not just about the War in Vietnam, as important as the controversy over that conflict was, it is an examination of the meaning of moral courage, and the meaning of patriotism.

It is, at its core, a cultural critique — examining the implications of an object-oriented culture in contrast against a person-oriented culture. It examines the meaning of love, and what it means for the religious to live out the meaning of their faith.

The King national holiday is, of course, about more than one race or one man; it is about a nearly 200 year struggle to resolve a fundamental Constitutional crisis that was at the core of defining the United States, as a nation.

King, himself, was much more than a dreamer. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is now a classic examination of the walk of faith and of the moral and spiritual consequences of neutrality in the face of a great social and moral conflict.

King’s final speech, in Memphis, Tennessee, examined the issue of fairness in the treatment of the workforce. He closed the speech by contrasting measuring “success” by living a long life, as opposed to a life well-lived; a life that is lived for a purpose that extends beyond one’s mortality.

Happy Martin Luther King Day; a day to reflect on what it means to be an American, and what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.

How We Came to Un-Know What We Once Knew

Marvin Gaye in 1973

Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently saw a video of clip of John Lennon being interviewed in 1969. The interviewer asked him, “What will the ’70s be like?” Lennon answered him with typical late-60s naivete and optimism, “Oh, it’s going to be wonderful. In the ’60s we have been through racism, and wars, and sexism, and destruction of the environment — we’ve been through all that and we’ve learned from it, and you can’t un-know what you now know.”

As a youngster on city streets back in the 1970s, I thought that was true. It seemed to me, at that time, that everyone was focused on raising the “level of awareness” and “the consciousness” of the community.

Everywhere I turned there was an older “big-brother” type who was willing to pull me aside and school me about politics, economics and history.  The older baby boomers seemed to be the one generation that was the most determined to make self-awareness and community-building a priority, and to pass their experiences and lessons on to future generations for posterity.

I couldn’t walk down Homewood Ave., in Pittsburgh, without someone pulling me aside and handing me a newspaper, such as The Black Panther, Muhammad Speaks, or The Daily World. These were newspapers that I read along with more conventional papers such as The Pittsburgh Courier, The Pittsburgh Press, The New York Times, and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

When community activists gave me newspapers on the street they gave them to me for free because they knew I didn’t have any money. They told me they were investing in my mind. They were planting seeds that they expected to bear fruit once I got older. They encouraged reading and thought. Although they were each trying to sell me on their particular “party line” and social and political dogma, they inadvertently gave me tools that I could use to contrast and compare perspectives.

It seemed, at that time, that African American communities had turned a corner; and it seemed the same was true in other communities because of the widespread disillusion with the War in Indochina. People seemed to have learned that it wasn’t a good idea to fight wars where the United States was not directly threatened, and where we were told that we were saving people from themselves. It seemed we had learned to question the purity of our government’s motives when they sent young people off to die in places where it was unclear how the “enemy” could be a threat to America.

But much of what we thought we had learned in those days was un-learned by the 1980s. Back in the 70s many of my friends and I felt good about the fact that, unlike our parents’ generation, we were proud of our African ancestry and we wanted to know everything we could possibly learn about the continent of Africa. We were proud of our American identity, but we were also no longer ashamed of Africa.

By the mid-1980s, however, people were saying they didn’t want to be called “African American”. They made it clear that they were black, and that there was nothing about them at all that could be called “African” — sounding much like the generation that preceded them.

By the 1970s, even James Brown, who became a musical icon through his rhythmic footwork, his soulful scream, and his straightened hair, was forced to wear a “natural” if he wanted to keep with the times. The 70s was a time of newly discovered self-confidence and even the “Godfather of Soul” would not be given a pass for embracing symbolism from an earlier era, when anything that was distinctively black was considered inferior.

We seemed to have reached a watershed where black people would never go back to the implied self-hatred in the phrase “good hair” when people were actually talking about straight hair.

But by the 1980s, those same proud and “socially-conscious” black people started rockin’ Jerry curls. James Brown started wearing one too, and nobody even seemed to have noticed this symbolic leap backward. Once again you could insult someone just by talking about their dark skin, which had become, at least on the surface of things, a badge of honor back in the 70s.

But the thing that I found most confusing, in the transition from the 70s to the 90s, was the de-politicization of the black community. In the 70s, my friends and I saw education as a means of social and political liberation, and we were as likely to embrace schooling as a means to rebel against white supremacists, who had made it clear that they didn’t want us to go to school, as we were to rebel against schooling itself as being just another form of “mental slavery”. Our perspective on schooling was characterized by ambivalence — but both sides of that ambivalence arose because we had a highly politicized sense of the meaning of education.

This ambivalence toward schooling became so pronounced, and perhaps absurd, that upon meeting Maya Angelou one day I told her that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to college because I didn’t want to be “used.” Angelou looked at me in disbelief and said, “Well, it is better to be ‘used’ than to be useless.”

By the 90s I hardly heard anyone refer to schooling as a means of liberation. Most young black males I talked with during that time saw formal education as little more than job training, at best. More typically schooling had become merely a process of credentialing. The notion of college students engaging in grassroots community organizing, a fairly common idea as late as the 1980s, seemed to almost disappear altogether by the 1990s, until it re-emerged as “community service,” which was used to pad resumes and graduate school applications in hopes that it would give the applicant a competitive advantage.

Not too long ago I pressed a baby-boomer, who had been active in community organizing and social movements back in the 60s and 70s, on what had happened and why it was that grassroots movements for social change were so much weaker; and how it was that the political discourse in African American communities in particular — and in American communities in general — had become so shallow, replaced by obsessions that were driven by consumerism and commercial culture.

We were sitting, at the time, in his living room, surrounded by memorabilia on the walls from the 60s and 70s, and by shelves full of vinyl R& B and Jazz records that were in pristine condition.  The former community activist looked at me and said, “Mortgages happened. Putting children through college happened. Car payments happened. That’s what happened, my brother.”

Later, I related this story to a friend of mine who is in his 20s. His father had been active in Black nationalist movements during the 60s and 70s. We sat in a greasy spoon diner on a rainy afternoon as he gave his assessment of things, “The community was flooded with drugs, like crack cocaine, and that wiped everything out.”

We spent the better part of the afternoon reminiscing about what things were like in working class black communities during the 70s and 80s. I told him what I saw and experienced first hand, and he told me about the stories his father had told him.

The conversation turned to the problem of how too many young people today don’t even seem to have a rudimentary sense of history and of current events. We noted that, at least until the mid-90s, even if you didn’t follow the news, the lyrics in rap songs kept you reasonably informed. Back in the 90s we used to refer to rap music as being our “CNN”. Today, hip hop has been taken over by commercial empires and one is hard-pressed to find popular audio clips about anything more than “shaking your booty”.

As we swapped our war stories I was transported back to an earlier period in my life, when I was sitting in a barber shop and the music on the radio was playing James Brown’s “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing,” and Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going on?

My father and the barber bantered back and forth, swapping their own war stories about the economy and the state of police and community relations. Much of what they said went over my head, but — in broad outline — themes seemed to emerge: that the current economic policies were crushing working people; that it was hard for small minority-owned businesses to survive; that it was getting harder and harder to hold a family together; that “those boys” were coming home from Vietnam strung out on drugs and their minds were really “messed up”.

Veterans from WWII and Korea were saying that Vietnam was different, and that something was happening to those boys that the government wasn’t telling us about.

I remember thinking, as I was listening to these older men talking, that I was getting to hear what adults talk about. I was getting the inside story. I remember thinking that they were passing on their experiences to me.

As my mind returned to that rainy afternoon in the diner, it struck me that this was what my friend and I were now doing. We were sitting in the diner swapping war stories. What is life like for you? How are we gonna make it? What do you think is happening to the community around us?

The difference between the conversation, in my father’s day, and what we were doing on that rainy afternoon, was that in my father’s day this was much more common. Today barber shops have widescreen TVs, and everyone seems to be plugged into their MP3 players. We seem so networked, and yet we are so fragmented.

As my mind flashed back to the sounds of Marvin Gaye’s voice I began to appreciate the words in his song. As his lyrics entered into the chorus he sang, “Talk to me, so you can see what’s going on.”

It sounds ironic to say, in this high-tech digital age of social networking, but one of the advantages my father’s generation had over the generations that followed them was that my father’s generation could still talk to each other and see what was going on.

The disappearance of the ability to tell stories, to share stories, and to have conversations about things that matter may explain how it has come to pass that we have actually managed to “un-know” what we had once known, back in the 1970s.

C. Matthew Hawkins

James Baldwin and Kenneth Clark On the American Psyche in The Early 1960s

Image Credit: CORBIS-Bettmann

Clark Interviews Baldwin

In the summer of 1963,  leading figures from African American communities, including psychologist Kenneth Clark and novelist James Baldwin, met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss social and political concerns of African Americans, particularly the need to secure their rights as citizens and to defend the dignity of their humanity. These leaders attempted to explain to the attorney general why the current social and political conditions,  and the apparent national ignorance or indifference about the slow pace of progress toward racial equality and social justice, made it necessary for them to organize a march on Washington.

The Kennedy administration, which was involved in a Cold War ideological battle with the Soviet Union over which political and economic system was better suited to create the conditions to liberate the soul of humanity,  feared that  images of civil rights  protests, beamed around the world, would be a propaganda coup for the Soviets.

The Kennedy administration also feared that they would be forced to address the issue in congress, which could further divide the Democratic Party and prevent the administration from pushing through other legislative initiatives.

For their part, the Civil Rights leaders were determined to challenge the administration to do more than just talk about civil rights and racial equality.

By most accounts the meeting with the attorney general went badly. The advocates for civil rights said that Kennedy seemed completely unaware of conditions facing African Americans, which were 11% of the nation’s population. To his credit, Robert Kennedy, later grew and deepened his understanding of the experiences of racial minorities, and also of the poor, through direct physical and personal contact and by immersing himself in issues related to their social conditions.

The summer of 1963, however, was another matter. The attorney general was in no mood to learn about people whom he saw as being a political liability for his brother’s administration. The mood among those who met with Kennedy was one of frustration and disillusion. Following that meeting, Kenneth Clark interviewed James Baldwin in what has become an important historical artifact. The interview provides insight into the persistent American dilemma over the ideal of democracy in a society that was based upon a racial social and political hierarchy. The interview also provides insight into the contested nature of how one defines the American identity.

Economic Marginalization

Today, 50 years later, many Americans believe that racial marginalization is a thing of the past; the nation has, after all, elected a black man as president. This clip should remind viewers that marginalization is not just a matter of  the laws that once enforced formal practices of discrimination and racial segregation. Marginalization also occurs as a population remains on the periphery of the economy, and is exacerbated by a disparity in wealth, which is the legacy of economic marginalization.

This is not the kind of thing that can be rectified through high-profile symbolic images alone, nor can it be rectified over the course of less than two generations. Economic marginalization is a product of, and perpetuates, racial marginalization. Nowhere is this more evident than in the effects of the current “Great Recession.” The official rate of unemployment among African Americans consistently remains at more than twice that of whites, and this is particularly a problem facing African American males. While unemployment for white males, 20 years of age and older, is 6.8%, and for white women is 6.5%, the rate for black males is 14.3% and for black females is 12% according the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. The causes for these disparities are complex. The current trend in social research points to a combination of cultural and systemic, or structural factors. Nonetheless, the experiential outcome is that African Americans in general, and black males in particular, are pushed to the margins of society.

Questions of American Identity: “Who are we and what is to become of us?”

Back in 1963, in this interview, Baldwin begins by accepting the notion that the experiences of African Americans, huddled in Uptown, are not the experiences that one thinks of when one is searching for “the American narrative.”  He quickly re-examines this assumption. The obverse side of the notion that one’s “outsider” narrative, is not authentically American, is to come to the realization that one’s status as an outsider may, in fact, be a quintessentially “American” experience.

Baldwin briefly forgets, but then remembers, that the Park Avenue he grew up on, “… is the American Park Avenue”  after all.

The American experience was not only the experiences of people who lived in homogeneous and affluent white suburbs or Rockwellesque small towns in the Midwest; it could also be represented by the uprooted, the displaced, and the dispossessed — those who lived in a multiracial and polyglot communities in America’s teaming inner-cities. This re-conceptualization of American identity challenges listeners to take a closer look at how that identity could be defined.

In this clip Baldwin tells the story of how he came home from the first day of school and his mother asked him whether his teacher was “white or colored.” He replied that she was “a little bit colored and a little bit white.” This captures, for him, the “dilemma of the American Negro” who is not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually “a little bit white and a little bit colored.”

Growing up in American society is an experience of cultural, psychological, and intellectual hybridity. It suggests that the diverse cultures, religions, “races,” and ethnic groups that compose American society are now inextricably bound; yet there are those who insist on seeing people, whose social experiences are not like their own, as being “other,” as though they are exotic strangers, who are difficult to understand and are often to be feared. This is particularly true today, in terms of popular perceptions of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hispanics.

In any hybrid society and culture the inescapable questions are: “Who are we?” and “What will become of us?” These are questions that  Zadie Smith poses in her essay “Speaking in Tongues.” Baldwin frames these same questions for mid-20th century African Americans this way: What is the role of black Americans in American society and what will the future of black Americans be?

Baldwin tapped into the blurring of racial and economic marginalization when he recounted how his father frequently lost his temper when Baldwin was growing up. He says he later understood that his father was angry because “part of his problem was that he couldn’t feed his kids.” Economic marginalization, particularly as it threatens a socially-constructed masculine identity built, in large part, on the notion of being able to provide for one’s family, leads to frustration. That frustration must eventually find an outlet.

A Moral and Existential Problem

Being forced to the margins of society is not only a problem for those on the margins; it is also an existential problem for society. It is a question of whether or not that society is morally fit to survive.

This moral fitness to survive cuts both ways, however, in Baldwin’s eyes. As early as 1963 he noted, with anxiety, what he called “The vanishing moral authority” in African American communities, making it ripe for self-destruction. He noted the skill with which The Nation of Islam (NOI), (not to be confused with the religion of Islam) skillfully manipulated the insecurities of black Americans, and eased their emotional and psychological pain by offering them a mythological history based on black supremacist demagoguery.

Baldwin points out that, by 1963, the religious-based moral authority within the African American community in the South was no longer operative in black communities in the North. He says that while Martin Luther King still had moral authority among most Southern blacks, he had “none whatsoever” among blacks in the North. Added to this was the fact that the fact that the old style of black leadership, consisting of people who could keep African Americans under control in exchange for gaining access to resources for black schools and other institutions, was no longer functional.

Young blacks, in the North and the South, were impatient for change and could no longer be suppressed. The effectiveness of demagogic movements was based precisely on their ability to tap into the anger and frustration of this rising generation, and to corroborate their day-to-day reality. The older leadership had left a gap that younger demagogues were more than competent to fill, by more accurately expressing the anger and frustrations of their constituency.

Baldwin pointed out that what the NOI offered was a “false promise,” that was morally bankrupt. The romanticism of Eurocentrism and white supremacy cannot, says Baldwin, be cured by the concept of black supremacy and an equally romantic Afrocentrism. Yet, Baldwin credits the NOI for creating an authentically grassroots movement; something that the mainstream civil rights movements failed to accomplish, in his opinion.

Baldwin notes that if the Federal government, and the FBI, were concerned about the rising influence of groups, such as the Nation of Islam, then their focus should not be on targeting these intolerant groups, but should be on the social, economic and political conditions that bred such intolerance, and made it appealing to the masses.

African Americans, in Baldwin’s opinion, faced an existential crisis — but so did the United States, itself. The problem of survival would no longer be a problem faced by African American alone: “By the time I was seventeen, you had done everything you could do to me. The problem now is, ‘How are you going to save yourselves?'” asks Baldwin.

Baldwin noted that white Americans had invented the mythological creature called the “Nigger,” whom they used to justify denying social, civic, and economic rights to black people. Baldwin was very clear that he, himself, was not this creature, whether Americans wanted him to be or not. But, after creating this monster — to loath and to fear — the psychological task for white Americans would now be to confront their need for the “Nigger” in the first place.

Baldwin says that Americans must ask themselves what role this image plays in their psyche; if white Americans invented such a creature, they must have had a need for it. Baldwin adds, that in the creation of this creature, and in behaving as if the creature was real, allowed white Americans to justify their own behavior — and indifference — that in any other context would be seen as being “monstrous” in itself. In so doing, it was the white Americans, Baldwin argues, who had become “moral monsters.”

Baldwin concludes that the existential crisis for America depends on its ability to confront the necessity for this dehumanized image of black men. Once again, for Baldwin, this is a question of being morally fit to survive. When Kenneth Clark attempts to summarize what Baldwin is saying Baldwin corrects him in order to make his meaning clear. Clark says, “I hope Americans will have the strength,” but Baldwin interrupts and corrects him, saying, “the moral strength.”

Clark continues, “…to answer that question,” but Baldwin interrupts and corrects him again, saying, “…to face that question.”

Baldwin was all-too familiar with the mythology of the American fix-it culture and American “know-how.” This is the idea that one can stand over any problem and operationalize it, as if it were a machine. But human beings and human experiences are not mechanical parts.  Baldwin was asserting that the role of the “Nigger” in the American psyche was not a question to be answered, but a question to be confronted.

He realized that acknowledging, confronting, unpacking and deconstructing the need for such a creature would, itself, accomplish the dismantling of the psychology that led to its construction in the first place.

C. Matthew Hawkins

Also of Interest: An Overview of African American History


Watching Cultural Icons Age (and what we learn about ourselves)

Image credit: Retro 1

One of the more disconcerting things about getting older is that you get to see the cultural icons, which you grew up worshiping, in a much more vulnerable and less flattering light.

This is disconcerting because, I find myself confronted with the contrast between my childhood and teenage images of  cultural icons, whom I once thought were invulnerable, and the raw reality of their lives as they unfolded over the decades. On the one hand, as an adult, I believe that I can understand these cultural icons better, and relate to some of the things they have gone through, but this requires taking them off of their pedestals and seeing them less as gods on Mount Olympus, and more as the flawed and fallible human beings we all are.

It is also disconcerting, of course, to see their physical deterioration over time. It is disconcerting to confront the reality that  although one might be young,  rich, healthy, sharp-minded and famous, at one point in in their life, they can end up being broke, homeless, obscure and disabled later in life. As a teenager, I never imagined this. It can be a sobering experience when one confronts the reality of human vulnerability.

I had this experience recently when I revisited and re-traced the lives of two of my childhood heroes: Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone). Not only did both of their lives take a course that I never could have anticipated when I was younger, the meaning of their message — the very things they symbolized — I no longer see as being positive, without reservations.

Image credit: Wikicommons

As a cultural icon, Muhammad Ali represented more than just boxing to my friends and me as we were growing up; he embodied a new form of liberated African American manhood. Yes, we were impressed by his agility in the ring, and his ability to predict the round that he would knock his opponent out. We were also impressed by the way he used poetry to brag about it. But another part of what made Muhammad Ali such an important role model for us was his social and political commentary.

During a time when African American children were being taught, in public schools, that there was nothing for us to be proud of, Muhammad Ali boasted of “Black Pride,” Black beauty and self-respect. It was a message we desperately needed to hear, and they way he carried himself seemed to provide us with an example of the fearlessness that we should adopt too.

Ali’s influence was not just stylistic, it was also political. When he was drafted to go to war in Vietnam, we felt that he spoke for us when he refused, saying, “No Vietcong ever called me a Nigger.” We felt that we had our own battles for racial equality to fight here at home. We saw hypocrisy in the government’s claim that it was fighting for democracy in Vietnam, when we knew that our voting rights still were not secure here in the United States, because of our race. As a cultural icon, Muhammad Ali represented African American manhood that was strong, agile, intelligent and proud, when we were frequently told — through other social and cultural messages — that we were not supposed to be any of those things.

But there was another side to the legend of Muhammad Ali. I didn’t pick up on this other side, very easily, as I was growing up, but Jack Cashill did. He wrote about later in his book Sucker Punched: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali And Killed King’s Dream.

Image credit: Jack Cashill

The leftist politics that Ali embraced, and that we believed would liberate us, was antithetical, in significant ways, to the progressive liberalism that was also a part of our upbringing. Progressive liberalism argued that African Americans helped to build this country, and had earned the right to full participation in its civic and social life. It also argued that African Americans were products of, and contributors to, Western culture — even as we were products of African cultural traditions and contributors to the culture of the African Diaspora.

But Ali denied this aspect of our heritage. Ali not only preached Black Pride during a time that the dominant culture denigrated Blacks; he preached Black separatism and the uniqueness of Black victimhood, which are not particularly helpful if one wants to effect social change and racial progress. While African Americans spent over 200 years struggling for the common sense recognition of our “American-ness,”  alongside of our African origins, Ali denied that we were American at all, and that American institutions had anything of value to offer African Americans.

Then, of course, there were disturbing intraracial aspects to Ali’s behavior and discourse. He reserved for himself the right to speak on behalf of all Black people, and he reserved a special animus toward blacks who might disagree with him in public. He also demonstrated a deep level of contempt and ridicule for black boxing opponents who were darker than he was, and who had more distinctively African features. He did this, while promoting himself as the embodiment of Black pride.

Growing up, we were blinded to all of that.

We didn’t see, in boxers such as Floyd Patterson or Joe Frazier, African American workingclass heroes whom we could look up to. Instead, we saw what Ali wanted us to see: “Uncle Toms” who were “the White man’s Niggers,” especially because they were Christians who unabashedly saw themselves as being Americans.

It’s a shame that we didn’t recognize our own values and experiences in the people Ali vilified.  The hard work and quiet modesty of a Joe Frazier or a Floyd Patterson would have been much healthier and affirming character traits for young boys and men, who were trying to overcome the obstacles of American racism, than the egotistical and flashy showmanship that Ali represented. Ali, of course, had the substance to back up his flashy showmanship, but we did not. It would have been better to have embraced role models who exemplified modesty and discipline, so that we could build up our skills, than to imitate Ali’s showmanship without seeing the disciplined hard work beneath the surface. And, of course, Ali’s one-dimensional notion of black victimization was not the best preparation for young men who were entering an increasingly interdependent world which required strong empathetic skills that would cross racial and cultural divides — skills that would be essential in order to heal and mend those divides.

Image credit: Rollingstone Magazine

If Muhammad Ali appealed to one aspect of the formation of my character and identity, Sly Stone certainly appealed to another. Stone’s influences, in significant ways, contradicted Ali’s. Sly Stone, as a cultural icon, embodied the African American dimensions of the Hippie movement. His message was that of an inclusive libertarianism.

The signature songs from Sly and the Family Stone, at least for me, were: “I wanna take you higher,” “Everyday people,” “Stand,” “Everybody is a Star,” and “Thankyoufalletinme be mice elf agin.”

Go back and listen to the lyrics of these songs. The common theme that runs through them is the sense that one should be comfortable in one’s own skin. We all have to be who we are, and not what someone else wants us to be.

The refrain in “Everyday People” is “Different strokes for different folks.” The lyrics in “Stand” challenge the listener not to compromise on matters of principle, at peril of ceasing to know who one really is. In “Everybody is a star,” the listener is reminded that that which makes one beautiful is the same thing that set one apart from the crowd. It is a rejection of mass conformity and dull-minded sameness.

“Thankyoufalletinme be mice elf agin” acknowledges that there are risks in being an authentic “self,” but there are greater risks to unprincipled conformity. The song cautions the listener that although “Dying young is hard to take, selling out is harder.”  Betrayal of one’s core is a form of dying.

These cultural icons — Muhammad Ali and Sly Stone — really did represent real alternatives for young African American males growing up in the 1970s. It was important for us to hear their messages. It is, however, disturbing to look back on that period from an older and more mature standpoint.

Just as we didn’t fully appreciate how counter-productive Ali’s views on racial and national identity were at the time, we also didn’t fully appreciate how much of Sly Stone’s unconventional behavior was rooted in the drug culture. Over the years, Sly’s creative genius proved to be no match for drug-induced stupors. The live performances of the group were hit and miss. Sly, himself, was so drug-addled that he frequently forgot the words to the song. There were stories that he often missed performances altogether, so that even if you purchased a ticket there was no telling whether the group would show up or not.

Two of my childhood and teenage cultural icons had uncommon strengths, but they also had severe character flaws. I wasn’t aware of the character flaws until I, and they, were much older; but if I had been perceptive enough, I would have caught on earlier.

In the video clip below, Muhammad Ali and Sly Stone appear on the Mike Douglass Show. This clip exemplifies the underlying strengths and weaknesses of both of these cultural icons. Ali is in full victimization mode as this clip progresses, and he becomes particularly dismissive of Sly Stone’s attempts offer another black man’s perspective on things. For his part, Sly is so lost in what appears to be a drug-induced haze that he doesn’t know which side of the argument he is taking from one moment to the next. His instincts point him in a more universally empathetic direction, but the power of Ali’s personality, and Ali’s dismissiveness toward Stone, ends up forcing Sly to “clarify” himself by trying to sound more and more like Ali. Also, Sly seems to be torn between his role as Mike Douglass’ co-host, which requires that the show, above all, entertain, and his sense that Ali is articulating the perspective of many young black Americans at the time, and Sly — as a cultural icon — did not want to find himself on the “wrong side” of the discussion.

In the end, the very things that made these two men the cultural icons that they were, back in the 1960s and 70s, ultimately destroyed or disabled them by the 1980s and 90s. Ali’s hubris led to boxing injuries that damaged his nervous system to such a degree that he does not, in any way, resemble the agile and articulate champion he once was. Yet, this has also allowed him to mellow and has brought his more humanitarian and universally inclusive side to the fore. Sly Stone also reached the point where he was no longer able to perform, and has recently been reported to be homeless, attempting to get help for his drug addiction.

I’ll continue to hold onto the best of what both of these cultural icons have given me. Their weakness should not erase the sense of possibility that their strengths inspired. There was nothing inevitable about the course of either of these two men’s lives, but their lives do provide a cautionary tale about why we must all be vigilant toward the hobgoblins inside of us. Without such vigilance, and self-awareness, we can easily be consumed by our weaknesses.

C. Matthew Hawkins

Also of Interest: How Music Tracked Cultural Changes Toward Science, Technology and Heroism, African American History

Interview with David Gilmour; Insight Into the Creative Process

David Gilmour at Live 8. Cropped version of Im...

David Gilmour at Live 8. Cropped version of Image:Mr David Gilmore.jpg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I selected this interview with David Gilmour because it provides insight not only into the history of Pink Floyd, as a band, but also insight into the creative process itself. As the interviewer says, before listening to this interview I already knew what meaning I had read into albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and Welcome to the Machine; it is fascinating, however, to see what meaning these albums had for the band.

The Creative Process

Note what Gilmour says about the images of the Album cover, for Welcome to the Machine, were selected.  I wonder how many non-professional artists and creative writers can summarize the themes they are working on as succinctly as Waters and Gilmour were able to summarize the them for Wish You Were Here, when they discussed the concept behind the album with Storm, who designed the album cover.

It is also interesting to hear Gilmour talk about the way the band created a “theater of the mind,” and the way that literal accuracy in the sound effects for the album would not have worked as well as the literally inaccurate, but more believable sound effects that they actually used.

Social Activism, Musicality and Outsized Egos

The riff between David Gilmour and Roger Waters is not unlike the riff between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. As a teenager, I thought of myself as being a “Lennon” man, until I really started listening to the compositional skills of Paul McCartney, rather than the social and political content of Lennon’s lyrics. Likewise, I always thought of myself as being Waters man, especially after the Radio Kaos album, until I started listening carefully to David Gilmour, who seems to have been more of a consistent musical force, as opposed to being at the forefront of social commentary, as Roger Waters has been.

As Lennon’s political activism did not seem to be entirely selfless, but seemed, in fact, somewhat connected to an outsized ego, so did Roger Water’s social and political consciousness-raising seem to be connected with a certain lack of humility, which clearly contrasted with a humbler self-assessment displayed by David Gilmour, as evidenced in this clip.

Because of a few expletives in the clip listener discretion is advised.

C. Matthew Hawkins

Also of Interest: Pink Floyd and Autumn Moods

Philosophy and Fall: The Logical Song, 33 Years Later

English: A Taste of Summer Festival - June 10,...

Roger Hodgson, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roger Hodgson, formerly of Supertramp, wrote the Logical Song, which was a big hit back in the 1979. For me, the important thing about the Logical Song was its critique both of schooling, as a means of socialization — it is more important, in formal education, to turn out respectable vegetables than it is to turn out thoughtful human beings who are also in touch with their feelings — and its critique of rigid categories we try to put people in (liberal, radical, fanatic, etc.).

In this song the viewpoint character says, in the refrain, that while the rest of the world is asleep (this can be taken both literally and as a metaphor) deep questions begin to surface about who he really is, apart from the categorical labels that are being stamped on him. He describes himself as being a “simple man,” meaning a man without guile and worldly affectation — in other words, a plainspoken, honest and straightforward man; all of which are considered severe liabilities in today’s schools, in the workplace and, of course, in government.

Also of interest: My Favorite Thinkers and Their Thoughts; and New Visions for Education; and Squonk Opera, “The Roadshow”

C. Matthew Hawkins

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